Boy in the Better Land 

For me, 2020 was the year the world lost its marbles. I was living in Malasaña, Madrid when it all began. I had quit my Melbourne 9-to-5 six months earlier and was absorbed by a master’s course on Documentary Photography & Reportage. The newsreaders were the first to get me apprehensive when they mentioned an infectious little Chinese export. The last time one of those came into my life, I had no resistance. This time was different. The liberty takers stepped in for my protection. And me and my Macanese missus were banged up abroad. 

After three months sitting by the sunny window, our captors relented. And we had it on our toes. Berlin for a month. Amsterdam for two. For the rest of that year, Europe was there for the taking. With Brexit closing in, we returned to the motherland for a family Christmas and to plot our next move. But our libertarian leader had other ideas. Channelling his inner Churchill, he came up with chalk rather than cheese. Where old Winston convinced people to give up their lives to save our freedoms, his windswept fanboy took away those freedoms to “save lives”. 

It felt like a betrayal and made the old country unrecognisable. The post-Olympic swagger I left in 2013 was gone. Replaced by a conformity I could not condone. During my five years in Australia, trips home ended with the feeling of how little things had changed. This time it was the big things. Rebranding our rights as privileges and making them a condition of good behaviour felt very unBritish. Down under, in my other country of citizenship, they went further. Abandoning its status as the most liveable city, my old stomping ground, Melbourne, inflicted the world's longest lockdown on its inhabitants. The Mick Dundee spirit was dead in the water. And my sense of belonging was floating in there with it. 

If the episode taught me anything, it was the value of freedom and friendships. The masses were swapping liberty for convenience and sleepwalking into an authoritarian’s wet dream. I was not on board. The philosophy of Albert Camus gave me some direction. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Learning to say no to things I disagree with and having the courage to create something new would be my path to freedom. 

When the borders reopened in May 2021, the good-ship Rookster slipped its chains and set sail for new horizons. Our unwillingness to join the big pharma loyalty scheme reduced our travel options. Mexico was one of only four countries open to us. So, with our government traffic light flashing amber, we took the risk (of thinking for ourselves). The first stop was Santiago de Querétaro - a city unknown to me until I made a friend on that photography course a year earlier. Querétaro happens to be the state in which Mexicans first plotted their independence from the Spanish. Where better for a couple on the run?

Reflecting on my youth, I connected some cultural dots. As a fifteen-year-old, Fools Gold by the Stone Roses had been my anthem. The song is a nod to the Humphrey Bogart classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A cautionary tale about how greed corrupts the soul. Now. Thirty years later, on my first weekend in Mexico, I was sitting in the same mountain range, eating gorditas with my hands and drinking micheladas under the shadow of a tree. Our liberty was edible; no airs, no graces, a breakfast for the carefree.

The safetyism suffocating Europe was present but supplied in a more autonomous and less intimidating form. Friendly faces were hidden by surgical masks, even on the streets, and children did not get a pass. Shop assistants and security guards stand on ceremony in doorways squirting customers with sanitiser. But all these things felt very optional. As I wandered, the contradictions amused. Uncovered manholes kept me on my toes, but there was no rest for the weary - park benches were deemed too dangerous.

In getting to know the locals, I use the word America to refer to the United States. They pull me up straight away. "You are in America now”, they say. “We are American." It was a subtlety I had not considered much before. America is a continent, not a country. I stood corrected. But Mexico has not escaped the influence of their noisy neighbours to the north. Bellies are big. And cut price Coca-cola fuels a cultural addiction that has put the nation's health on the line. In some places, agua is the more expensive thirst quencher. Social movements have spread south too. Gender ideology, once confined to the campuses of California, has found momentum with the Pride marchers of Mexico City.

Acclimatising, I realise the Mexican mind is different to my Western one. Arranging to meet friends and spitballing ideas are not easily distinguishable, leaving me at a loose end more than once. Then I discovered the lingo comes with laxity built in. Depending on the tone of voice, the word ahorita can mean right now, not anytime soon, in a bit, or probably never. It was hard to decipher, especially for the ultra-organised like my missus. Another colloquialism adding to my confusion was the general refusal to respond in the negative. A frustrating piece of etiquette, apparently borne out of politeness, which left me muttering Nancy Reagan’s favourite mantra under my breath. 

As I explore my new favourite country, my camera chimes with the cultural contrasts and crossovers. In the cartel-safe state of Yucatan, a man carries a Scarface picture through a busy market. While a pile of Oaxacan cheese that looks like Tony Montana's last shipment props up a thousand-yard stare. Homebrew ferments in a Guadalajaran pulquería where CBD laces the lager, and a river runs through the street outside. And a boy walks out of a Bukowski poem with one eye on his future as a congressman. Pinball machines wait to be played as their minder gets sidetracked by his pocket-sized equivalent. And Minnie Mouse waves at a passing coffin – the mourner's trumpet metaphorically cut by the frame – for a life-curtailed mid-tune. A throwaway comment from Nigel Benn in 1987 gives extra significance to the Mexican roadsweepers. And a boy in blue kicks a football into the sunset. His arm curled skyward like the hand of god as a bottle of whisky that bears the name of the stadium, where that cheat prospered, lies broken on the ground.

In the tourist traps, a refurbed wonder of the world lies in the middle of an open-air souvenir market. While the boho crumpet of Tulum lookout for the next beefcake in a singlet and a top bun. And caked-up gringos in Cancun shuttle back and forth between designer shopping malls and the Mexican waves. There are no lions in England. But at the market in Mexico City, they keep watch as a pavement pantomime of preoccupied police oblivious to a pretend Batman takes place outside. And a history lesson comes at the Casa de Léon Trotsky. The exiled Russian revolutionary and bedfellow of the ever-present Frida Kahlo was assassinated here by ice pick. 

Being away had changed my perspective. In the same way that CarlSagan’s pale blue dot analogy humbled our view of planet Earth, so had lookingback at the motherland from an extended time overseas. Seeing how the Mexicansdo things, I drew comparisons with my own country. Our superiority was notobvious. Preconceptions of people and places based on national reputations andstereotypes had not matched my experience. This was a land where people werecontent with simple pleasures and knew how to have a good time. Sometimes youhave to travel to find the familiar. 

The pandemic caught me during what psychologists call the mid-life transition. That pivotal moment when a man reckons with his past and floats ideas for potential futures. Losing a dad at 15 and a twin sister at 41 had alerted me to the brevity of life - and accelerated my decision-making. Madrid was the beginning. But the Covid response derailed things. Opportunities were thin on the ground. And my urge to create dried up too. My exile in Mexico between 2021 and 2023 helped get things back on track. Free from the constraints and conventional thinking of home, I felt liberated and inspired again. The newness of my surroundings piqued my curiosity and fueled my process. Whoever said unused creativity is bad for your health was right. There is only one thing for it. My future must combine photography with a life on the road. 


Mexico; Querétaro, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo (May 2021 - Jan 2023)

Zine available to purchase and preview on Blurb: 54 photographs & a 1,500-word essay

Substack post about my creative process


 

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